Camp Question: The 50-50 Ball?

In Camp Question No. 2 IrishEyes asks: Can the ND defensive backs win the battle for the ball in the air?

Greg Mathews, Blair White, James Johnson, Rich Gunnell, Jonathan Baldwin, Ryan Whalen…its not an exhaustive list, but if you've re-watched any of Notre Dame's head-shaking 2009 season, you know the names. Each won key one-on-one battles vs. Irish cornerbacks and safeties. In the case of Gunnell and Baldwin, repeatedly.

It's a frustrating development for coaches, players and fans alike: the defender is in position to make a play – the receiver comes down with the ball.

Golden Tate made a living on the skill set in his college career; Irish opponents helped usher in a new era and coaching staff doing the same last fall.

IrishEyes poses the question: Can the Irish win the battle for the ball in the air in 2010?

An Educated Decision

"You played the ball, not the man. This is a ball…this is a man."
– Coach Nickerson to defensive back Stefan Djordjevic in the 1983 film, All the Right Moves

Unfortunately in real life and in today's game, defending the downfield pass isn't that simple, but according to new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin, the technique is coachable.

"You can do it by throwing them a lot of balls," he began when asked how to improve a player or unit's performance vs. the ball in the air, "and (instill) a little bit through a mindset.

"But probably the most misunderstood aspect is decision-making. Part of it is the decision: ‘Do I try to play the ball or do I try to play through the arms?' If the ball's between (for example) me and Michael Floyd, there's times when the ball might be tilted a little bit my way where it might be a time to bat it down, or it might be a time to get two hands on the ball.

"And there's times where maybe it's a little tilted toward (a big receiver) and I'm trying to flail at the ball; I didn't lose the battle for the ball, I lost the decision . (Because) that's the time I had to try to play through the arm, when the only way I'm going to keep someone from catching it is to pull an arm down."

The Unfortunate Example

Irish fans have suffered through it. Twice. The undervalued Navy football team coming to South Bend and taking a game from the heavily favored Irish. The latest matchup to go the way of the Middies was tough to swallow with Notre Dame holding a decisive talent advantage.

Part of that edge was in the form of returning wide receiver Michael Floyd. In his first game back from a broken collarbone, Floyd was thrice paired up with 5'11" 188-pound Navy cornerback Blake Carter in 50/50 ball situations. Once Carter was called for interference in the end zone. But twice more, Carter broke up the pass by ripping Floyd's hand away from possession in the air. (Floyd caught 10 passes and a touchdown on the day while Carter forced a fumble with two pass breakups).

It was equal parts desire, scouting and technique on Carter‘s part – a defensive back coach's dream.

"We're working on all those things," Martin said of the intricasies of the skill. "Sometimes it looks like we have it, but that's a process, too."

Martin can impart half of the ingredients above; providing his troops with the information and schooling necessary to succeed.

It will be up to the Irish defensive backs to rise to the challenge and win the battle for the ball in the air in 2010. Top Stories